The Legal History of the LGBTQ+ Movement

In the more than 50 years since the Stonewall uprising began the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, there has been a massive shift both socially and legally when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. This process hasn’t been easy. Years-long court battles, shifting public opinion, and legal setbacks have plagued the fight toward equality. Supreme Court decisions over the years on topics from free speech protections to the right to marry have both championed and limited LGBTQ+ people’s civil rights.

First Gay Rights Case

The first case related to LGBTQ+ rights to go before the Supreme Court was One, Inc. v. Olesen in 1958 and concerned the question of whether LGBTQ+ media was protected under the First Amendment.

ONE: The Homosexual Magazine was published as America’s first widely distributed gay magazine. The magazine was intended for an LGBTQ+ audience and included articles, short stories, photography, and other content. Copies of the magazine were later seized by Los Angeles postal authorities who argued the publication included material that violated obscenity laws. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that content aimed at an LGBTQ+ audience was not inherently obscene and people had a right to publish such content.

Marriage Equality

Marriage equality was a long-fought-for right for the LGBTQ+ community. The first case concerning marriage equality went before the Supreme Court in 1972. Baker v. Nelson was brought to the Supreme Court after Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell attempted to sue for the right to legally wed in their home city of Minneapolis. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case “for want of a substantial federal question,” but the couple eventually did marry by obtaining a marriage license in a different county.

In 2013, another landmark case in the fight for marriage equality was brought before the Supreme Court. United States v. Windsor concerned Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a lesbian couple who were married in Canada and later moved to New York. When Spyer passed away, Windsor attempted to claim a tax exemption for surviving spouses, but was blocked by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which specified marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” The Supreme Court ultimately ruled DOMA violates due process and equal protection.

The case which finally granted marriage equality to the LGBTQ+ community was Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. This case involved a group of over a dozen same-sex couples arguing that state officials prohibiting them from marrying violated their 14th Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, granting LGBTQ+ couples both the right to marry anywhere in the country as well as benefits guaranteed to opposite-sex married couples, including social security benefits, survivor benefits, and healthcare.

Legal Protection Against Discrimination

Over the last several decades, there have been several cases related to legal protections against discrimination for LGBTQ+ people. In 1996, the Supreme Court heard the case of Romer v. Evans which concerned a Colorado law banning anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQ+ people from being passed. Because this law singled out a certain group to limit or take away rights, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional.

Also in 1996 was the case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. This case revolved around James Dale, an assistant scoutmaster and Eagle Scout who was expelled from the Boy Scouts of America after he was identified as being gay. The New Jersey Supreme Court initially ruled in his favor, but the ruling was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court. Citing the Boy Scouts’ right to freedom of association, the court determined that a private organization was within its rights to single out LGBTQ+ people.

In 2019, the Supreme Court took on several cases concerning workplace discrimination. Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission each involved issues of workplace discrimination against gay and transgender workers. The ruling affecting these cases was given in June 2020 and determined that LGBTQ+ workers are protected under Title VII. This ruling ensures LGBTQ+ workers cannot be fired based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

The history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement has been full of hard-won legal cases which slowly expanded legal protections and rights for LGBTQ+ people. While the last few years have shown a more rapid shift, there is still work to be done for the LGBTQ+ community to be not just protected, but fully accepted. To celebrate Pride Month this June, our team at Lamar Law Office wants to commemorate and celebrate the strong history of the LGBTQ+ community and stand in solidarity in the continuing fight for equal rights.